Obesity weighs heavily on employers

April 30, 2008

The rate of obesity in the United States has doubled in the last 30 years, and is weighing down companies’ bottom lines, according to a new report from the Conference Board, a business membership and research organization in New York.

The rate of obesity in the United States has doubled in the last 30 years, and is weighing down companies’ bottom lines, according to a new report from the Conference Board, a business membership and research organization in New York.

Weights and Measures: What Employers Should Know about Obesity, shows that 34% of American adults fit the definition of “obese.” Obese employees cost U.S. private employers an estimated $45 billion annually in medical expenditures and work loss.

The report also finds that obesity is associated with a 36% increase in spending on healthcare services, more than smoking or problem drinking. More than 40% of U.S. companies have implemented obesity-reduction programs, and 24% more said they plan to do so in 2008. Estimates of ROI for wellness programs range from zero to $5 per $1 invested.

While the report also notes that the jury is still out on the costs and benefits of paying for employees’ weight-loss surgeries, some experts say that progress is on the horizon for innovative obesity therapies.

“With respect to adult obesity treatment and prevention, tracking employer and health plan investments and initiatives requires monitoring numerous functions,” says Clive Riddle, president and founder of MCOL, a provider of health management and managed care resources in Modesto, Calif.

Companies embracing total population health management may be structuring prevention and maintenance programs that can reach employees not even covered under health benefits.

“Innovation in the obesity prescription drug pipeline will be huge in the near future,” agrees Gary D. Tollefson, MD, PhD, president and CEO of Orexigen Therapeutics Inc., a San Diego, Calif.-based biopharmaceutical company. Orexigen has two obesity drugs in late-stage clinical trials.

“There is growing recognition that obesity involves the central nervous system,” Dr. Tollefson says. “Researchers [here] are leveraging our recent understanding of these pathways in the brain to not only initiate, but maintain a pattern of weight loss for a longer period of time. In addition we are targeting those central pathways associated with ‘craving’ or the inability to control what and how much we eat. Increasingly the concept that certain foods are rewarding, or even addictive, is a subject of significant medical interest.”